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The Brendan Higgins Band / Blog

Acoustic playing

I've been playing a lot of acoustic over the last few years. The electric is pulled out only when playing out with friends. It's hard to crank it to 11 at 10:30 at night when the house is asleep. Playing acoustic solely seeps into how you view the guitar. There is a different way to play that challenges you to be clear and clean. Don't get me wrong, the electric is its own beast with a huge amount of skill needed to get the best out of all the sounds and equipment connected. The acoustic and electric are different instruments. With the acoustic, you are naked. It's just you, your vocals, and 6 strings. It's guitar playing in its simplest form. For me, there is a ton of confidence needed for acoustic. You need to believe in your song and its message. It's you carrying the song. It's your energy, your attitude, your emotions. If you doubt, the audience is out. Vocal confidence is required. You don't need to be the best vocalist, but you need to know how to have inflection, strongly convey the emotion you're aiming for. The playing needs to be clean and solid. Mistakes are easily noticed. Fills are important (aka Neil Young). Songs tend to be shorter. This makes me pay more attention to lyrics. In a shorter song, repeating lyrics are more obvious. I try to be more concise in song structure, to make it easier to identify the various parts of a song. The vocals, message, confidence, and playing are all front and center with acoustic in a more pronounced way. A good acoustic song combining all of these is something you remember.

Mozart and Minaj

What do Mozart and Niky Minaj have in common? Hint: they share the same thing which lets them be different. Or even better, what do all western forms of music -Salsa, Rock, Blues, Country, Classical, Disco, Rap, Reggae, Polka, Traditional Irish, Traditional German (or any other European country), Techno - have in common? 12 notes (A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab). That is what most of the music we know is based on. 12 simple notes that can be put together in a finite way. There is probably a mathematician who has calculated the total number of note combinations. Yet, there seems to be an infinite number of songs across an infinite number of styles. How? First, it's a testament to the human artistic imagination to be able to create pleasing patterns of sound with varying tonal combinations and tempos. However, second and above all, is the ability of humans to alter tempos/timing. Two songs can have the exact same notes or chords, but be completely different. It's the timing. If quarter notes are used instead of half notes or the tempo is 3/4 time instead of 4/4, the songs are completely different. If the tempo is fast or slow, it alters the song. If the 2nd or 4th beat is emphasized instead of the 1st and 3rd, the song is different. The beat could be slightly off the count. The tempos between measures can rise and fall. A rest might change the whole voice of a song. It comes down to the ability of musicians to transform time. All western song are comprised of 12 notes. It is the ability to alter time that gives the notes their infinite number of songs.

Touching the third rail

For full disclosure, I'm a huge Beatle fan, so please bear that in mind when reading this. This past New Year's, two performances from Times Square reminded me of 1) how good the Beatles were as musicians, 2) what it means to have the backbone to say what you believe in public and 3) how you get burned if you don't handle iconic songs as they should be. 1) How good the Beatles were as musicians - hearing Justin Bieber try to handle the message and vocals of the song (not that I could do it myself) made me realize again how great the vocal ability of the Beatles were. They not only could hit notes when needed and harmonize as well or if not better than the Beach Boys, but they were able to deliver a message and an emotion together. Bieber doesn't have it yet to do such a thing. Perhaps in the future, but not now. 2) Cee Lo didn't have the backbone to stick with the original words of "Imagine". Whether you agreed with him or not, John Lennon took a lot of crap in his life for saying what he believed. The song "Imagine" has been played over the last 40 years as an anthem against what he believed caused divisions among peoples. Religion was one of those things. Cee Lo deliberately changed the words and threw out 40 years of meaning to duck controversy. 3) Any song in the public lexicon, be it a song by the Beatles or anyone else, needs to be approached carefully not because they should never be musically rearranged, but because they are so well known. If you are doing a well known cover exactly like the original, it needs to be spot on in every way. To make the original arrangement your own, you need to add something better than the original (think Twist and Shout - no one remembers the Isley Brothers). Justin Bieber and Cee Lo failed to do this and fell short of anything they were trying to accomplish.

Classical Music is the new thing

Despite being so old, classical music is the new thing for me. New York radio is not the best. I either hear 40 year old classical rock songs I've heard a million times (even the Police are now 25 years old) or the dance my music my kids listen to (some of it is pretty good, but in small doses). I feel lost between the dinosaurs of rock and the hatchlings of today. So, I tuned them both out for the time being and have been listening to one of the few classical music stations in the area. Without the benefit of words to tell a story, melody and leitmotifs carry the day. The music opens up a musicians ear to the subtleties of tone, the use of key changes, the intricacies of composing for an orchestra or for a string quartet, the various combinations of instruments to convey musical tone, the use of silence for emphasis and dramatization, and the need for mastery over the musical scale to translate the music in ones head to notes and beats on a page. Learning to listen instead of being screamed at lets you learn a lot.

Does Indifference Make for Better Songs?

Yes. When you don't care what people think, you create things that make people think.

Paul Campbell- The Synthguy
Paul Campbell- The Synthguy  (almost 4 years ago)

I think you're right about that. Any time I try to write something "people will like" it sounds forced and artificial. I try to write what I like to hear.

Where, oh Where did the time go?

I was walking back to Penn through Bryant Park the other night and the skating rink was going back up! Didn't they just take it down last week? I felt like the summer never happened at all. In about a week, New Yorkers will be out skating before the holiday invasion starts. I feel the same way when reflecting on my long path from basement guitar master to internet sensation (at least in my kids' mind). It's hard to believe I've been playing now for nearly 40 years. It's a part of me just as anything else you do since you were 7 or 8. I'll be in my nursing home driving the nurses crazy. I've played with some of the best musicians you've never heard, but if they were in front of you on stage you wouldn't believe they weren't famous. There's Eric - a guitarist so quick and fast and is able to pick out any song that it's hard to believe he doesn't use his pinky when running up and down the fret. Bob was a first class drummer who gave it up to become a first class guitarist, but now plays drums again on a national TV show. John is a fantastic lead guitarist who can play the Dead like no one's business. Joe is a bassist who suffered the slings of ridicule for his art because he played with a pick. Tom rivaled Eric in finger prowess and Mike is an all around showman who can get any crowd singing. Ivan was literally a piano prodigy. Jen can sing circles around any of the false voiced radio stars and Lou is able to play expertly any instrument with strings. Martin was the coolest Swede who ever played the sax. Terry and Phil, a lethal brother combo, knew their stuff and could rattle the windows of any garage attic. Paul is one of the most innovative keyboardists you'll hear. My friends and I will most likely never be famous or rich from music, but like anyone else who plays, it really doesn't matter. You have your moments and memories. I've played numerous street fairs and talent shows, blown off the doors of an unsuspecting crowd outside of Dublin, got paid in beer on the streets of Germany, was a frequent live guest on a local Long Island radio show, had a regular gig at a fine food establishment in Forest Hills and now I have a small but dedicated number of fans throughout the world listening to my songs. Like the skaters on the ice, you glide across a surface and every now and then look down to see the grooves of where you were and what you've let behind.

Paul Campbell- The Synthguy
Paul Campbell- The Synthguy  (almost 4 years ago)

Thanks for the mention, I did play with a number of the fellows you mentioned. As well as a quite excellent guitar player named Brendan. Those basement Rock and Roll days seem like yesterday. Good times to be sure.
I'm revisiting your music, and I'm working on putting a new twist on some of Bob's songs and recording them. Should be an interesting project.
Be well and keep Rocking!

Realizing What You Do Best

I hope everyone had a good summer. I can't believe September is already half over and Halloween is right around the corner. After taking the summer off of writing for a number of reasons, I recently started to pick up the guitar again to get my calluses back to playing shape. I found myself playing simple I-IV-V progressions in E (the standard blues progression). I also seemed to have found my voice in whatever tuning I had going on. For the first time in a long time, I felt comfortable in my skin as a guitar player and as a singer. I've known all along that the I-IV-V is what I do best, it's just taken the long way home to finally get there. The older I get, the simpler I want things to be and you can't get more basic than the blues. So, we'll see what songs pop out. Expect simple songs of simple truth. Let me know how things are going. As always, feedback is appreciated as long as its honest.

Relearning Motivation

Inspiration and/or motivation is a very fickle thing. While I try to write on a consistent basis to challenge myself, there always needs to be that spark of inspiration or desire to put the time and effort into converting melodies and lyrics in ones head to a recording which captures and represents those ideas as imagined and in a way which might be enjoyable to others. It must be built track by track, measure by measure and, in some cases, note for note. It consumes much more than time. There eventually comes a point when you ask yourself is it worth it? I've been playing guitar and writing since I can remember, probably since the 4th grade, give or take a year or two. I started bothering neighbors by playing in a basement and to this day I am still relegated to the bottom confines of the house. Long ago, blunt realism let me know there is little to no chance of a music career, but the computer and social networking allowed me to artistically strip myself and lay myself bare to what others would say about my songs, many of which carried some heavy emotional baggage. The mere fact that total strangers from far flung countries have become fans is a source of motivation that can't be underestimated. It lets you know you are not crazy to believe you've got a little bit of talent. But there is still a point when you struggle with that question. Over the last few weeks, I've experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows of inspiration. The high was a recent trip back to my old college town. I hadn't been there in years. I've been familiar with the town since I was about 14. It has not changed. Which is a good thing because that means your memories are not radically altered. So much came rushing back. All the details. All the nights. All the days. All the people who filled out my time. Ideas were everywhere. I thought it would last for a long time. But when I got home, the reality of my days set in. There was no time. There were too many things to do. There were too many responsibilities to keep. The guitar gathered a coat of dust. The inspiration vanished to a point where I seriously thought of packing away my equipment for good. It was gone. I'm starting over now, learning how to find the motivation again, to find an emotional connection back to why I started to play in the first place. It's odd thinking about something which was second nature. It will come back in due time. As I look at my kids playing guitar, tapping on the keyboards, or bothering the neighbors with the off beat of toy drums, I know the answer to that question. It is definitely worth it.

Phase Writing

Phase Writing is when a writer or artist becomes engulfed in a particular mood or style for an extended period of time. Think of a particular Spaniard's "blue period." This is what's happening to me at the moment. Everything I play is coming out on the acoustic in the key of E. I can't play in G any more despite that fact it used to be my favorite because of its easy to solo over minors. A just doesn't sound right and the triad D doesn't do it for me anymore. E is the key. With its resonating low open 6th string and dissonant, flat 5th note, it has a feel you can't let go. What is one to do? I say go with the flow. I'm going to play in E until it bleeds back into G. I'll play through its blues, its melodic instrumentals, its Jethro Tull type riffs, and its slow JJ Cale groove. I'll play it until the scales wrap around me like a fish. This phase might last a few songs. It might last a year. Who knows? As long as it feels right and sounds good. To E is to Be, if you know what I mean (sounds like the start of a song).

Expect the acoustic video of the new song "Big Train" soon (in E of course). The recorded version within two weeks or so.

Playing with Empowerment

I think I'm becoming an all powerful god on the guitar. I'm starting to play things I could never play before. Songs are coming together easier. Lyrics are flowing. The fingers don't seem heavy. I am becoming far better at translating what is is my head into chords and notes. The neck seems smaller and now makes perfect horizontal sense. I know where all the notes are. I can hear a sound before I play it. Did I follow Robert Johnson down to the crossroads? No, it's just been many years of moving past roadblocks, stretching my style to fit what you hear, practice, knowing failure and success, and taking risks. All of this builds into self awareness and a self confidence which leads to empowerment. I'm no longer afraid of making mistakes. This sets you free. It's sort of like the feeling you get at work when you realize there is nothing that can rattle you, you know just how to handle any situation. And the exciting part is that there will be another eureka moment sometime down the road when I will reach still another level of confidence. I think that's why a non-overdosed musician lives so long - their road never ends,they keep striving for the next level.

Paul Campbell- The Synthguy
Paul Campbell- The Synthguy  (over 4 years ago)

I look forward to hearing your new found confidence. I love it when I reach a new plateau of skill. I wish you many "happy accidents" which always occur when we flex our musical muscle!